Thursday, February 28, 2013

New Faces Lead Historic Preservation Agency

After a few years of little contact with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency that's changed with the resumption of the Illinois Amistad Commission. There's a number of new faces now.
  • Sara Meek is the new legislative liaison for the agency. She started Feb. 18 and made the news this week as she's the first person to hold that position in the agency which has been fraught with budget cuts over the last decade or so. She has a close relationship with at least one lawmaker, her mother, state Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur. I had a chance to meet with her last month at the first meeting of the new Amistad Commission in Chicago. She offered good first impressions and should help the agency. It's not just funding issues that the agency faces. At some point there will need to be legislative solutions if the agency will still be able to fulfill its missions.

  • Amy Martin is the relatively new director that I also got to meet for the first time at the Amistad Commission meeting. She started last May. She had previously served as acting deputy director of regional outreach for Illinois Main Street in the Department of Commerce and Community Affairs. First impressions: I like the fact she doesn't hesitate to say what she thinks, or at least what she thinks should be said when it comes to her agency. I also like what I've read about the new directions she wants to take the agency. More on that below.

  • Alyson Grady now heads the Historic Sites Division which oversees the Old Slave House among other sites. I have not met her yet but hope to do so soon. There's already been one major change in historic sites that makes sense from both a management and a tourism perspective. Grady announced last month that all five state-owned historic sites in Springfield will be under the management of a single site superintendent. More on that later as well.

  • Kristy Bond started Feb. 11 as the agency's new marketing director. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum used to have a position, but Bond's new job not only covers the museum but the agency's other locations statewide. 
Also in terms of personnel changes, Evelyn Taylor, the agency's long-time Constituent Services Division Manager who oversees the educational programs and publications is retiring. Her last day is today.

The 2012 Annual Report for the agency was her last major project.

In her previous position at the Illinois Main Street program Martin worked with communities to expand local economies at the intersection of economic development and historic preservation. That is an attitude greatly need in IHPA.

(It's not so much that her predecessors were opposed to it, but were more focused on maintaining whatever they could of the agency's core mission and responsibilities. Today the agency has suffered more in proportion to its budget and staffing than any other agency in the state. Martin, it seems, is ready to think outside the box.)

Here's what she told the State Journal-Register when she was hired last year.
"One of the things I hope to continue (at IHPA) is by generating revenue at all of the historic sites – it's important, especially important for us, to bring in that essential funding during these tough economic times," Martin said.

Martin declined to go into specifics about her plans, saying she will confer with her staff and review their accomplishments.

Martin said she applied for the IHPA position because of her Main Street background.

"I am very interested in how historic preservation can be used as an economic development tool," Martin said. "Through my efforts with that program at DCEO, I worked a lot with IHPA staff and historic preservation."

Did you notice that part about "generating revenue" at historic sites. That's been a major roadblock agency. They've not been expected to generate revenue. In fact, the General Assembly whether as individual lawmakers making threatening phone calls, or acting collectively, have actively discouraged the agency for generating revenue through one-time event fees or admission fees.

The historic sites division has gone from 148 to around 67 staff members in the last decade. That figure is a year or so old so it is probably worse now. Many historic sites, if they are still open, are down to just one full-time person. Obviously, the trend can't continue or the agency will be forced to close down additional sites.

Not only is that bad for history, but for local economies that rely on tourism to be a part of their economic mix. It's also bad for efforts to re-open the state's other sites which have been stuck in limbo for years if not decades. We're starting Year 13 of state ownership of the Old Slave House with no plan in site to re-open it. Even worse, it's around Year 67 for the Shawneetown State Bank historic site that remains closed.

That Martin actually recognizes the role her agency plays in economic development represents a major step forward. My biggest disappointment with 1990s-era Brent Manning at the Illinois Department of Conservation was his reluctance, and even denial, that state parks somehow didn't have a role in Illinois tourism.

I had a conversation regarding these themes a few years ago with Justin Blandford who's now tasked with overseeing five state historic sites in Springfield. At the time, he was with the Old State Capitol site, but was also acting as the interim director of the Historic Sites Division at the time. Coming up from a well-visited historic site he understood the issues of lack of coordination between sites and the simple fact that Springfield tourists who come to see Lincoln sites don't care about the administrative make-up of the agencies involved, they just want a coherent, entertaining and educational experiences.

He's explained the current moves at the start of the year to the Springfield paper.

"What we will be moving toward is where we have the flexibility to assign staff among all the sites," said Blandford. "While that seems like a very simple action, that did not happen very much in the past."

He said administrative staff also can be assigned to more front-line duties. "I also see myself doing more at all the sites," said Blandford.

Blandford, who is moving his office from the Old Capitol to the Dana-Thomas House, said the changes should not be noticeable in the day-to-day experience of visitors.

Operating hours remain the same, and a variety of special events, including the “History Comes Alive” living history program, will be scheduled again this year. Each site also will retain its unique look and identity, he said.

"We want to make sure people understand what this is not. This isn’t any quick and fast changes of these sites," said Blandford. "We hope this uplifts the confidence the volunteers, the community members, the business sponsors and the staff have in these sites.

"That's a major component of this: continuing to support morale and to give new confidence that all these sites are solid for what they do for the community, both economically and historically," Blandford said.

The staff cuts aren't so good but the agency appears to be responding in the right direction.